Sunday, February 22, 2009

B: Last Sunday after Epiphany (2/22/09)

 Mark 9:2-9

Human beings have an ambivalent relationship with large quantities of water—that is, any amount larger than what a bathtub can hold. As Spring approaches the upper Midwest, with the ever-present threat of flooding, we are even more acutely aware of this ambivalence! Under the proper circumstances, we enjoy being on water and in water. 

But we also realize that it can cause great harm, and even kill us, quickly and without warning. So, in our more organized and safety-conscious swimming areas, we employ lifeguards. When we swim under a lifeguard's gaze, we expect and are reasonably confident that if we get in over our head, or get a cramp, and are thereby put at risk, the combination of the lifeguard's desire to help us, and his or her abilityto help us, and our willingness to cooperate in being helped, will result in our being rescued from the peril we find ourselves in. 

Desire + ability + cooperation = deliverance.

Or, to express it theologically, making God the lifeguard:  God's love + God's power + our faith = protection from whatever it is that might harm us.  God will keep me from getting the flu, or God will get me that job I need, and if he doesn't, it must be that my faith wasn't strong enough or I didn't pray the right way, or ... something. 

Don't we sometimes hang on to rather childish views of God?  We make him out to be something on the order of a Saturday morning cartoon super-hero, who, because he is all powerful and all-virtuous, will see that we really need to win the lottery, and that, after we take care of our need, we’ll put the money to really worthwhile uses—unlike all those others who merely want to win the lottery and would just use the money selfishly. After all, I love God, God loves me, and the Bible says that those who love God are destined to live with him in heavenly glory, and, well . . . let's just get on with it, Lord! Why mess around any longer with all these annoying details of life—like friends who disappoint us and family members who betray us and bodies that get old and fat and wrinkled and politicians than lie to us and thieves that rob us and interminable wars that drop bombs on homes and schools and wedding receptions. Let's just forget about this suffering business and get on to the main event. 

About a year from now, the Winter Olympics will be held once again. I can’t say that I particularly enjoy participating in winter sports, but for some reason I really like watching the Winter Olympics. One of the sidebar human interest stories I like has to do with the participation of athletes from countries we don’t normally associate with winter sports.  Now, maybe they’ve tightened the rules so that this doesn’t happen anymore, but most of these winter athletes from climates where a cold front means  having to put on a sweater when the sun goes down are usually the entire “team” from their respective countries, and generally finish last or near last in their events. Some of them had never even competed prior to their appearance at the Olympics. All they've have to do was scrape together the finances for a round-trip ticket, and there they are, shoulder to shoulder with those who have dedicated major chunks of their lives to earning the right to appear on the same ice or ski slope or luge run.  They have sought to participate in the glory of Olympic competition with a minimum of personal investment. 

If you will make a leap with me from the Winter Olympics to an unidentified mountain in first century Palestine, I will suggest that the holy apostles Peter, James, and John have something in common with Sri Lankan speed skaters and Brazilian bobsledders, and with us... in those moments when we want God be a celestial lifeguard or superhero, and just get us out of all this trivial suffering and take us directly to the heavenly banquet, where, during the after-dinner awards presentation, we'll finally get that golden crown. Peter and James and John are on top of the mountain, and Jesus is mysteriously transfigured, revealing the very glory of heaven, and Moses and Elijah—two of the superheroes of Israel's history—show up as well, and, to top it all off, the voice of God himself booms from on high.  The poor disciples think, “Hey, we're rubbing elbows with some pretty impressive company; this calls for a celebration.  Jesus, how ‘bout we build monuments for you and your two guests, and maybe, down the road, we can charge admission, get a T-shirt concession, sell the movie rights—you know, this could really help out your cause.” 

They didn't get it. 

They didn't get it. Peter and James and John were like athletes from the land of sun competing in sports from the land of ice. They didn't quite understand what was going on, and what their place was in it.  Their befuddlement was not because Jesus hadn’t tried to clue them in to what was happening. Just before climbing the mountain, Jesus had said, point blank, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.” 

And, of course, after they got down from the mountain, back into the real world, that's precisely what happened. Jesus was nailed to a cross by the bad guys and there was no lifeguard or superhero to rescue him. Daddy didn’t make it all better. And two of the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration abandoned him when he most needed a friend. 

But there on the mountaintop, with Jesus’ clothing shining more brightly than any cold water detergent with bleach could ever make it, the disciples thought, “This is it!  We've arrived!  The glory of God has been revealed and pretty soon it’ll flow down this mountain and fill the valley and everyone will see what we see and know what we know. The kingdom has come. All that talk about suffering and dying—well, I didn’t hear him say that, did you?” 

Are you blessed to find yourself on a mountaintop in your life today?  Take care that you don’t start thinking and acting like the kingdom has come for you, that you've arrived. 

In your journey through life, are you currently exploring the valley of the shadow of death, the valley of fear, the valley of anger, the valley of despair?  I will not trivialize your suffering by telling you to “cheer up, this too shall pass.” But I will suggest that your position in the valley is the best possible vantage point from which to perceive the meaning of the mountain. What Peter and James and John did not “get”, what you and I often don't “get” when we’re on top of the mountain, is that the glory of the mountaintop can only be understood in the light of...suffering. The splendor of Jesus’ transfiguration is empty apart from the agony of his death on the cross. So if you're in the valley, look up at the cross, and see that you're in good company.

And don't be envious of those who are on the mountaintop.  You, after all, can see what they can't. You can see that the light show up on that mountain is not the main event, the coming of the kingdom. It’s just a sneak preview. Only from your position close to the cross can you see that beyond and through the cross is glory and splendor that makes the light of the Transfiguration look like a forty watt bulb! 

If you're on the mountain, enjoy it! And take strength from the experience, because the valley still lies ahead of you.

At the winter olympics, there may yet be a Moroccan ski jumper or two, who only first saw a pair of skis last month, and who yet put on the uniform and march into the stadium for the opening ceremonies.  But in the kingdom of heaven, the only path to lasting glory leads through the valley of the cross.  There's no getting around it,  there's only getting through it.  The beginning of Lent closes in on us now, a season when, as a community, we walk that way more intentionally and more  intensely. We do so in the hope that we will thereby be enabled to grow beyond a childish conception of God as a lifeguard superhero who is there to “make it all better”, to a mature relationship with  a God who has became one of us, who suffered with us and for us, suffering which alone gives meaning to the glory which we also share with him. 


Monday, February 9, 2009

B: Epiphany V (2/8/09)

Mark 1:29-39

I enjoy history. I enjoy reading about, and seeing movies about, famous and important events and people. It is sometimes tempting for me, as I suspect it has been for many of you, to fantasize about living in some other time in history. When I get grumpy about the state of the world, or society, or the church …it’s easy to entertain the notion that I would have been more appropriately born in some earlier era. What brings me out of that fantasy, however, is my knowledge of another side of history, which is concerned not with famous people and events, but with the ordinary details of people’s lives in times past. I’m aware that I would be very quickly unhappy with the basic amenities of life—sanitation, heating and cooling, clothing, communication, transportation, and food. But the one factor that would outweigh all others in my decision to not go back in time, if the opportunity presented itself to me, is the quality of medical care. Even going back to the standard of medical practice three or four decades ago, at the time of my own childhood, would be an unacceptable sacrifice. There were too many things that people died of, or were crippled by, throughout most of human history, that are now completely preventable or treatable.

And at no time do I feel more connected to my preference for life in the early twenty-first century than when I read about the earthly ministry of Jesus. That ministry consisted of two activities that almost completely eclipsed all others—teaching and healing. I would venture to speculate that, with his teaching, Jesus had the luxury of being proactive. He could choose where and when he was going to speak, and what he was going to speak about. With his healing, however, as I read between the lines of the gospels, it seems to me that his ministry is more reactive than proactive. Especially in his adopted hometown of Capernaum, Jesus is incessantly confronted with sick people. He can’t escape them. As soon as he heals one, ten more appear. They multiply exponentially. At that time in history, there were a lot more things to make people sick than there are in the developed world today, and a lot fewer resources to make them well.

This is not to say, of course, that sickness isn’t still a major issue with us. It is. In my own pastoral experience, cancer definitely tops the list of life-threatening and anxiety-provoking diseases. In Africa, AIDS has wrought such havoc as can scarcely be imagined, let alone described—along the lines of the bubonic plague in the European middle ages. But our relative freedom from a long list of lesser medical evils simply enables us to pay more attention to more subtle—but potentially just as deadly, from a spiritual standpoint, at least—more subtle forms of illness. Depression, for example, would hardly have been thought of as a disease even a hundred years ago. Yet, we now know that that an actual chemical imbalance in the brain can lead way beyond a blue mood to a whole range of destructive behaviors that, unfortunately, culminate in suicide, and there are hundreds of thousands of people, just in our own country, who are affected by this condition. Then there’s addiction—addiction to alcohol, drugs, nicotine, gambling, sex, work, power—the list could go on and on. Again, just a few decades ago, addiction would have been seen as mostly a defect in one’s moral compass, a flaw in one’s character, and therefore most appropriately dealt with through various punitive strategies. We generally have a more complex understanding of addiction nowadays. We know that addicts suffer from bondage to a power that is beyond their control, and we therefore tend to be more compassionate.

Of course, once we open the gate to a broader perception of “sickness,” it’s easier to look at it from an overtly spiritual perspective. Moral categories—like pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, greed, and sloth—come into play. These are, of course, the “seven deadly sins,” and if one or more on that list didn’t pull your chain, then you either aren’t human or you’re already most of the way to perfect sainthood. Most of us—all of us, when we’re completely honest—have some experience of being in bondage to sin in the same way that a cancer patient or an alcoholic is in bondage to those diseases. We would like to be free of it, but we know we’re not. If my neighbor goes out and buys the exact kind of new car I wish I had, and I obsess on that fact and nurture the feelings of resentment toward him that well up inside me, I am in bondage to envy. I have willfully committed a sin, to be sure, but I am at the same time a victim of it; I am sick with envy, and I need to be healed. If I am successful in acquiring something that I need or desire—money comes to mind most readily, of course, but it can be technology or works of art or sports equipment or household knick-knacks or just about anything—if I continue to hoard something long after I have more of it than I could possibly use, then I am sick with greed, and I need to be healed. If I’m constantly anxious about how I look to others, if everything is eventually “all about me,” then I am in bondage to pride, and I need to be healed. If I find it impossible to have a plate of my favorite food put in front of me without grabbing a piece of it, I am sick with gluttony, and need to be healed. If I, as a man, cannot look at an attractive woman without wondering what if would be like to have a sexual encounter with her, then I am sick with lust, and I need to be healed. The same thing applies to anger: Simply feeling the emotion of anger is not in itself sinful, but when we consciously feed that emotion and savor the prospect of revenge on someone who has wronged us, we are sick with anger and need to be healed. And if we consistently pass up opportunities to demonstrate love or compassion or fidelity, then we are guilty of sloth, and need to be delivered from that bondage.

So, even though you and I enjoy a standard of medical care that is vastly superior to that which prevailed in first century Palestine, I think it’s safe to say that, if God had chosen our society in which to become incarnate, if Jesus cruised the highways of northern Indiana with his disciples in a thirteen-passenger van, he would not be any less a sought-after celebrity than he actually was. Yes, there would certainly be some conditions that were presented to him two millennia ago that could now be taken care of with an over-the-counter pill, but there would still be plenty of demand for his healing ministry.

It’s a good thing, then, that Jesus is still a healer! We serve a God who wants us to be whole. God does not wish sickness on anyone—not cancer, not alcoholism, not depression, not any of the seven deadly sins, not even so much as dandruff or bad breath! Jesus brings healing. That was an integral part of his ministry when he walked this earth, and it is an integral part of his ministry even today. When we come to Jesus in faith, and in the sacramental community of his Church, we open ourselves to his healing ministry. We open ourselves to deliverance from bondage—bondage to disease, bondage to fear, bondage to evil. The healing ministry of Christ in the gospels is the token and sign of his ongoing healing presence in our midst. You see, in the time of the gospels, not everybody got healed. We hear about the ones who did, but there were plenty who did not. And the ones who did get healed all eventually got sick again and died. Even those whom Jesus raised from the dead all eventually died again, of something. Jesus, in his mercy, chose to heal some—an extremely high number, in fact, though not all—Jesus chose to heal some as a sort of down payment on what will become the universal norm when his kingdom is fully come.

The coming of Jesus into this world two thousand years ago can be compared to the transitional time between Election Day and Inauguration Day. When Barack Obama won the election on November 4th of last year, there was no question that he would become the next president of the United States. But it took several weeks, during which time certain arrangements had to be made and certain formalities had to take place, before that election could be turned into an accomplished fact. You and I live, figuratively speaking, in an ongoing time of transition. On the cross, and in the empty tomb, Jesus sealed the fate of sickness and pain and fear. On that holy weekend, God pronounced a death sentence on cancer and AIDS and addiction and all seven of the deadly sins and anything else that might keep us from having life and having it more abundantly. Indeed, He pronounced a death sentence on death itself. During this interim period, we struggle on, and the fighting can get bloody. We await the final consummation of the Kingdom of Heaven, when God’s perfect rule of justice and love and joy will be the only order of the day. The waiting can feel very long, and it is tempting to feel discouraged. I was still a few years from being born at the time, but I suspect that those ten months between the Normandy Invasion in June of 1944 and the surrender of Germany in April of 1945 felt a lot longer than ten months to those who were doing the fighting and those who were praying for their safe return. God knows about discouragement, so He sends us periodic morale boosters in the form of miraculous healings. Healing cannot be produced on demand, but miracles happen every day, to lots of people. Even if we have not experienced a miraculous healing ourselves, we probably know somebody who has, or have at least heard accounts of such healings. Doctors do a final X-ray or ultrasound before a surgical procedure, and find, to their amazement, that the reason for the surgery has inexplicably disappeared. It happens. A person who has spent years as a slave to addiction, and been in and out of treatment several times, prays in desperation for deliverance, and is suddenly released from bondage—I’m not talking about going into “recovery,” but instantly being fully recovered. It happens. Someone else who has had a long and unsuccessful struggle with anger falls before the Lord in contrition and utter dependence, and suddenly finds that burden of anger lifted and replaced with a completely sweet spirit along the lines of what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge. It happens.

It doesn’t always happen. Many times, the answer to our prayer for healing is, “I will heal you, but not now.” That isn’t the answer we hope for, but we must not let it bring us down. Nor should we let the prospect of that answer keep us from praying for healing in the first place, and repeating that prayer often. It’s important that we ask. Asking is, in fact, the first step in the process of healing—whether that healing takes place suddenly, through a miracle; or gradually, through natural processes; or, shall we say, eschatologically, in the world to come. And please know that, as your pastor, I am eager to pray with you and for you, that you may be healed of whatever it is that is holding you in bondage. I want to do that for you.

Then, even if the Lord does not heal us in the way we want Him to, the act of asking is beneficial to our souls. At the very least, it consecrates our illness, and offers it to the Lord as a tool that is now formally at His disposal for the perfection of our holiness. And it is our lack of holiness, of course, that is the ultimate sickness that should concern us. When we have been made holy, when the image of God is fully restored in us, then the job is done. Nothing can hold us prisoner anymore; we find perfect freedom in the service of the One who is the true lover of our souls. Jesus heals. Thanks be to God. Amen.   

Sunday, February 1, 2009

B: Epiphany IV (2/1/09)

Mark 1:21-28

It’s still very early in the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. At approximately thirty years of age he left the carpentry shop he had inherited from Joseph, went down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, heard the approving voice of God the Father, and got anointed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.  He formed the nucleus of his band of followers, his disciples—the brothers James and John, and the brothers Andrew and Simon, and according to John’s account, Nathaniel. 

Now he’s ready to go public in a fresh way, and really get things rolling. He walks into the village of Capernaum—which, I can’t resist adding, I visited barely more than a week ago—finds the synagogue, and starts to teach. St Mark tells us that the people who were gathered there that day “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes, of course, were their usual teachers, but I’m not going to get into what this little comment implies about the quality or content of their teaching because, for Mark, the emphasis is all on Jesus, and the extraordinary quality of his teaching. He taught as one who had authority. What he taught wasn’t secondary, derivative, a summary of somebody else’s wisdom or insight. Rather, it flowed from the center of his being, from his very essence. It was authentic; it had an unmistakable ring of truth. Jesus’ teaching had authority because he was speaking on behalf of the author

Then Jesus goes on, in effect, to demonstrate the authority of his words by the power of his deeds. There’s a man in the congregation who is evidently possessed by a demon—what Mark calls an “unclean spirit.” Jesus commands the spirit to come out of the man, and in a rather loud and dramatic fashion, it does. And everybody is amazed.

Now, one of the fascinating things about the Bible, particularly a passage from the gospels like this one, is that what we get out of it depends a great deal on who in the story we identify ourselves with. If you were to put yourself into this scene in the Capernaum synagogue, who would you be? There are only four choices, really: You could be Jesus, you could be an unnamed member of the congregation—one of the amazed onlookers, you could be the man who has an unclean spirit, or you could be the unclean spirit. Right? Have I missed anything? 

So, I think most of us, out of what we would take to be appropriate humility, would probably not identify ourselves with Jesus. And most of us would probably be equally reluctant to see ourselves as the demon. So, given the two remaining choices—the demon-possessed man and anonymous membership in the crowd of amazed onlookers—I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of us are going to opt for anonymous membership in the crowd of amazed onlookers. After all, the members of the congregation were good, respectable people. They were normal (and we surely do all want to be normal; we all have our “inner child” that just wants to blend in with the crowd and not be conspicuous). They were trying to do the right thing, showing up in the synagogue. They were paying attention, and really liked this young man who was speaking. And when he was able to kick that demon out of that poor fellow—well, it was nothing short of amazing; we’ve never seen anything like it. 

And there’s an added convenience to viewing this story through the eyes of the amazed onlookers: It enables us to sincerely admire Jesus—which is a good thing to do; I mean, who wouldn’t want to sincerely admire Jesus?—but it also allows us to keep him at a safe distance. I’m not the one he’s talking to; I’m not the one he’s touching, because—hey—I’m not the one with the problem. I’m just normal. Keeping Jesus at a safe distance means we don’t have to step outside our comfort zone. We don’t have to change any of our habits or our attitudes or make any life-altering commitments. We can “feel spiritual” without actually being challenged.

But, what if I were to tell you that there’s a whole treasure trove of spiritual and practical benefits that is waiting for us, ours for the taking, if we’re willing to stretch a little bit, willing to step out and do something a little…risky?  What if we were to look at this story, not through the eyes of Jesus, not through the eyes of the demon, and not through the eyes of the normal and respectable—if totally amazed—onlookers in the synagogue congregation? What if, instead, we were to set aside our pride, and put ourselves in the place of the man with an ‘unclean spirit’? What would we see? 

First, we would be in touch with our own brokenness, our own helplessness in the face of the power of sin and death and evil. We would know our need for a savior, a deliverer, an advocate, someone on our side who is not only more powerful than we are, but more powerful than any challenge we might confront. 

Then, we would see a compassionate Jesus whose own heart is broken by the fact that we are “possessed” by a force that prevents us from being the person we were created to be. 

We would see a righteous Jesus who is justifiably angered by the injustice of our being held captive by the power of sin and death. 

We would see a powerful Jesus who speaks and acts with an authority that instills terror in anyone or anything that stands on the side of tyranny and oppression, anyone or anything that would seek to “possess” the beloved children of God. We would know the Jesus who is the model for the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories—a lion who is always good, but not in any way tame, not predictable, not “safe.” 

Most of all, we would know ourselves to have been delivered from that which enslaved us. We would know ourselves to have been set free from that which possessed us. Instead of being chained to the past, we would be able to embrace the future. Instead of being dragged down by guilt or grief, we would be free to organize our lives around hope and purpose.

It all depends on whose eyes we use to read the story.

But the blessings don’t stop there. When we identify ourselves with the man who is demon-possessed and is liberated by Jesus, we not only receive the grace of that freedom ourselves, but our own lives become a blessing to others. When we know ourselves to have been redeemed and made free, we become signs to the world of the inbreaking Kingdom of God, and the world is amazed. The world can “read” our lives—our lives as individual Christians, and our lives communally as the church—people can read our lives and “hear” Jesus speaking with authority and “see” Jesus acting with authority. They can marvel at the power in which God has acted on our behalf, and their hearts can be melted to the same liberating love that has set us free.

It all depends on where you see yourself in the story.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.